Michael Arndt

Image by Vesna Harni from Pixabay

Michael Arndt (IMDB entry) is a screenwriter well known for writing Little Miss Sunshine, Star Wars VII and Toy Story 3. He spoke at the London Screenwriters Festival and recently released a video about his experience of writing Toy Story 3. I've pulled together some brief notes from both his talks, see below:

In the setup or first scene, we want to establish our protagonist(s) in a way that we like them, care aobut them and want what they want. This last one is interesting, want what they want. I suppose this is so we become a cheerleader for their journey. It does somewhat dictate that the thing they want is not abhorrent.

A writer should establish

  • Establish characters
  • Establish relationships
  • Establish backstory
  • Set up expectations for the future

When Michael wrote Toy Story 3 it took him several years and is well documented in his video wheich I watched this week. It showed the many times they got stuck as well as the process of iteration through both the rapid creation of viewable versions of the script as well as through discussions with Pixar's Brain Trust.

Before the inciting incident, the protagonist(s) should have a clear sense of their future, it should be:

  • Certain
  • Clear
  • Specific
  • Sympathetic

One of the problems he faced was how to make the toys hate Andy. It needs to powerful to force them on their journey. At the beginning there are several options for what might happen to them as Andy leaves for college. They all believe the attic is the likely choice which they're comfortable with. However, throwing out is the most forceful choice but he just wanted do that too them. So it had to be a mistake - this was a breakthrough for Michael. In essence, he worked back from the inciting incident being the toys left in a bin bag on the sidewalk. Plot backwards.

An inciting incident should be:

  • Be a bolt from the blue
  • Change the future
  • Change sense of self
  • Change sense of world
  • Often worse (or best) possible thing
  • Insult to injury
  • Visceral

He gives other examples e.g. The Bicycle Thief, Cinderella, Star Wars where the inciting incident really drives them forward into Act 2. He's happy with a 40 page 1st act and shorter second act than traditionally written. In Star Wars (number 4) there's a clear trajectory to get to Alderon but it’s gone when they arrive. This is expanded in the new video, where he says that your protagonist needs a clear 2nd Act goal that gets uprooted later.

The 1st Act Break/Act 2 goal should be:

  • Clear
  • Binary
  • Simple
  • Sympathetic and compelling global goal
  • Specific and clear plan

Michael also discusses the midpoint. In Toy Story 3 they realise (through the lost eye) that Andy did want them so they head back. So we have a clear direction to the midpoint, then a 180 degree swivel with a new direction. You should plant the flag for the midpoint and a flag for the end of Act 2 early on. The midpoint should occur for all the characters at the same time. At this moment, the antagonist has won the argument.

The second Act break should affect all 3 stakes of your story:

  1. External
  2. Internal
  3. Philosophical

So in Toy Story 3, its

  1. Will they go home or go to dump?
  2. Does Andy love them or not?
  3. Is the love between toys and kids real?

and your hero must fail at all 3. They must face the ugly truth, the dark side of their nature.

If you have the 3 stakes then you need 3 climaxes that follow, starting with the philosphical, where they realise something about themselves and they make a change. They have an epiphany that's resonant for everyone. So in Toy Story 3:

  1. (Answering 3) Yes, the love is real but that doesn't mean you always will be together. Seen by watching Andy with his mother.
  2. (1) The toys will go to Bonnie
  3. (2) Andy tells Bonnie that he does care about them

I found this a fascinating talk, partly to see behind the scenes and how Pixar works and just the fact it took 3 years and the circles they went in. But of course, the insights are great too.

I watched the Days of the Bagnold Summer last night which I enjoyed and the plan for Daniel's holiday was clear, he was going to see his father in America. The cancellation of this is a bolt from the blue. However, the next goal for the protagonist is set by his mother, to get a summer job. He tries but fails. His mother is the mentor/buddy antagonist. The longer goal is buy some shoes for a wedding, the solution of which seems to be a compromise which was fairly obvious from the beginning.

The midpoint is not that clear but I suspect it's where he chooses to join a band but chickens out. For his mother it's having a date and then not a second one. So they both feel that they might as well give up on their dreams. However, I wasn't clear what the philosphical question or the internal and external drivers for Daniel. The 2nd Act break appears to be the death of Riley but I wasn't clear how this affected the 3 stakes - perhaps because I'm not sure what they are to start with. As a guess, he wants to be left alone/his mother to be cool, he needs ? and is the philosphical question life's too short, perhaps.

Anyway, I'll be using Michael's tools in my next redraft of Orbital. Some of the elements are there already or possible.